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Sunday, 26 October 2014 22:00

Nonprofits succeed with collaborative and diverse boards

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Joe Jones, president and CEO of Grand Rapids Urban League. Joe Jones, president and CEO of Grand Rapids Urban League. MIBIZ FILE PHOTO: ADAM BIRD

When nonprofits need to find ways to work more efficiently and effectively, the answer could be as simple as tapping into the organization’s board of directors for advice or direction.

That was true for the Grand Rapids Urban League, a community-based nonprofit working to promote civil rights issues and racial equality in the city’s urban core. As the organization looked to reinvent itself and focus on recruiting diverse professionals and helping businesses access communities of color, it leveraged a board member’s connection with Grand Rapids-based Cascade Engineering Inc. to develop a more robust business plan.

“They positioned us so we could operate more as a social enterprise — that was huge for us,” said Grand Rapids Urban League President and CEO Joe Jones, who came on board during the plan’s final phase.

“It changed our focus. We’ve historically worked in four areas: employment and training, housing, education and health. It really gave us a better understanding of how we could take our focus areas and create revenue streams with each of those four.”

The Urban League is just one of many West Michigan nonprofits that have a history of working closely with their boards of directors to effect change within their organizations.

In 2009, Kids Food Basket mined connections on its board of directors as it started to feel overwhelmed by the demand from area schools and parents for the nutritious meals it made for children in Kent and Muskegon counties.

“Poverty levels in the schools we were serving were just flying through the roof. At one point, we had 24 schools on our waiting list waiting for our services,” Executive Director Bridget Clark Whitney recalls of that time. “We didn’t have much money. We didn’t have a lot of cash reserve, but we needed something.”

That’s when Kids Food Basket turned to six-year board member Jay Ertl and his connections at Amway Corp. Ertl, who is the vice president of global supply solutions at Amway, brought in a team to teach the nonprofit about lean six sigma, a methodology that uses collaboration to remove waste in the workplace. The team specifically honed in on wasted space, movement and resources within Kids Food Basket’s building.

“By looking at everything very systematically and really being creative in how we were even making up meals or delivering meals and leaning out all of the systems and all of the processes, it helped us within that year become … more efficient,” Clark Whitney said.

In 2010, Amway and Kids Food Basket were nominated for the Partnership Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Civic Leadership Center, which recognizes companies and charitable organizations successfully working together.

In addition to its connections with Amway, Kids Food Basket has tapped into board members’ connections with other area manufacturers such as Herman Miller Inc. and Steelcase Inc. In September 2013, Herman Miller provided Kids Food Basket a three-year grant to support the nonprofit in providing lunches to a school in Muskegon.

“That’s a great example of Herman Miller getting involved at a ground level,” Clark Whitney said. “They got a school off the waiting list (and) they wanted to make an impact. They really wanted to move the needle. By serving kids who have never previously been served and committing to them for a three-year commitment, they’re able to help us grow our own capacity, as well as make a real commitment to the kids in this one school.”

Professional connections, however, are just one aspect of a having a successful board of directors. When choosing their boards, nonprofit organizations have to be methodical, making sure the board is diverse and inclusive. This includes not only various cultures and backgrounds, but also extends to members’ skill sets and ages and their professions, sources said.

“We’re fortunate in that because we are unapologetically urban in terms of our focus,” said Jones of the Urban League. “It’s never been difficult for us to have or develop an ethnically diverse board. When I came on (in 2011), part of my mission was to diversify in terms of age. So there was a need to have that type of diversity, as well as diversity in regards to professional backgrounds.”

Diversifying a board, however, is one of those tasks that is easier said than done.

“Boards definitely need to be more diverse, especially ones working in minority populations,” said Steven G. Depolo, who works at Grand Valley State University and serves as president of the nonprofit Dance in the Annex and is on the board of the Creative Youth Center. “Most nonprofits are started by dreamers and the boards are filled with their friends and family. It’s hard to meet new people. When donors such as theGrand Rapids Community Foundation and the Steelcase Foundation make board and staff diversity a priority, organizations have to scramble to make it happen.”

To make sure its diversity and inclusion needs are met on the board and within the organization, Kids Food Basket created a diversity and inclusion committee, which has been in place for two years. The committee is in charge of creating strategies for the organization to be intentional about its diversity and inclusion values.

“If we are calling ourselves a community solution to a community problem we have to reflect all members of the community,” Clark Whitney said. “We have to demonstrate that it takes an entire community to walk together to solve one of society’s most pressing problems, which is hunger. That is not a movement for people of just a certain socioeconomic status. It’s for everyone.”

Each organization has its own way of filling its board with members that have diverse skill sets, cultural and professional backgrounds and wisdom. The Grand Rapids Urban League’s new members are identified by the nonprofit’s nominating committee and voted in by the current board.

“Most of it is (using your) network,” Jones said. “You have existing board members that have their own network and they engage folks within their network to see if there’s an interest to participate on the board along with them.”

Kids Food Basket, on the other hand, requires potential board members to volunteer or serve on one of the group’s 16 committees for at least six months.

“The idea is we get board members that are actively engaged in a leadership volunteer role,” Clark Whitney said. “Anyone who enters onto the board has skin in the game. … So when you come onto the board, you don’t need an orientation. You’ve been actively involved with the organization for a long time.”

While these nonprofits strive to keep their boards of directors diverse, they all have one common goal: the organization’s mission.

“I’m confident in saying my board operates with a sense of urgency because they understand the disparities and some of the issues we’re facing as a community in the urban core,” Jones said. “We get energy all across the board. We get board members that are full of wisdom and life experience and they’re re-energized because they’re in an inter-generational environment. We’re very fortunate in that regard.”

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